In a fairly friendly forum with no one specifically attacking his opponent in the few contested local political races, candidates addressed a crowd of about 167 gathered at the Lincoln Theatre in downtown Marion Thursday night.
Sponsored by the Smyth County Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Tom Graham, the candidate forum drew most of the local candidates despite the only contested races being for sheriff, two seats on the board of supervisors, one seat on the school board and one seat on Marion Town Council.
The evening opened with brief addresses from Sen. Bill Carrico, R-40th, and Del. Jeff Campbell, R-6th, from the Virginia General Assembly, both are unopposed in their bid to return to office. Campbell, of Saltville, said he will continue concentrating on the economy and creating jobs and opportunities for the people of Smyth County.
Each of the county’s constitutional officers up for re-election – Clerk of Court John Graham, Commonwealth’s Attorney Roy Evans, Commissioner of the Revenue Jeff Richardson and Treasurer Tom Burkett – all Democrats, spent about a minute each introducing themselves with brief comments about their jobs.
Then it was time for the three candidates for sheriff to speak and answer questions. Democrat B.C. “Chip” Shuler, Republican Kevin Testerman, and Independent write-in candidate Beecher Perry each had strong comments about the office they are seeking with promises to work with the community to solve the devastating drug problem in the county.
Shuler, who currently serves as major in the Smyth County Sheriff’s Office, spoke of his 31 years with the department and being the only candidate with experience being in charge of homicide investigations and major narcotics investigations among other services, including working with federal and state agencies on multi-jurisdictional crimes. He wants to get the sheriff’s office accredited through the Virginia Department of Criminal Justices Services, which would open up additional opportunities for state and federal funding to save local tax dollars, put a school resource officer in every school and implement a program for protection of senior citizens.
Testerman, a sergeant with the Marion Police Department, said he is the only candidate who can bring change to the sheriff’s office that he described as being stagnant and needing to be brought up to date. He wants to see the E-911 system fully functional, increase shift hours for patrol officers, work more closely with town police departments and adjoining law enforcement agencies, even exchanging officers at times to help in drug enforcement, and make more use of social media for expanded communication.
Perry, a retired Virginia Game Warden who sought the sheriff’s job four years ago, said he sees three major problems in the county which are drug abuse, lack of confidence in the sheriff’s department and lack of trust by the community in law enforcement. He said he would implement citizen advisory committees to assist in crime reduction and provide input to the sheriff’s department. He said distrust of law enforcement is one of the greatest problems and that needed to be resolved for the sheriff’s department to be successful.
In the contested supervisor’s race, between Atkins district incumbent Republican Howard Burton and Democratic challenger Charles Atkins, the question asked involved teacher pay and funding cuts in the budget. Burton said if everyone who asked had been funded, county taxpayers would have faced a 22-cent property tax increase. The first responsibility, he said, is not to overspend, to not spend what you don’t have.
As did the candidates on the board of supervisors, Atkins said the county needs to build its tax base in order to have more money to fund needs and also to better support education and attract quality teachers. “It all starts there,” he said.
In the North Fork district, with incumbent Republican Ron Blevins challenged by Democrat Phil Stevenson, Blevins said funding for schools has increased over the years and is 54 percent of the county budget so it is an important aspect of the budget that funds 73 departments. He, too, mentioned the potential for a huge tax increase if all budget requests were funded but tough decisions have to be made in balancing the budget.
Stevenson said he can’t remember a time when the county was in more of a financial bind with infrastructure deteriorating for lack of maintenance. He said the county can find more money in its budget, and that money is being lost through bad decisions. He would place great emphasis on supporting schools and students.
In a contested race for the Rye Valley district seat on the school board, incumbent Jesse Choate faces a challenge from Stuart Orr.
Choate said the school board has faced tough times and the budget shortfall in the state meant there would be a budget shortfall in the county so he understands where the supervisors are coming from with cuts and belt-tightening. He said he didn’t necessarily agree with the Standards of Learning program, but it is something the county must work with, and teachers are good at holding themselves accountable despite working long hours and being underpaid.
Orr said a lot of hardship in the county goes back to a decline in morals, poor choices and a weakening of family strength. He said it takes everybody working together to make the best choices and the county has a good education staff. He said he thanks Jesus for saving his soul and if elected “I would give my all.”
In the four-way race for an open seat on Marion Town County, candidates Mike Edwards, Avery Cornett, Herbert Clay and Todd May each offered praise for the town.
Cornett said his platform is for sustained growth and economic development while preserving the town’s beauty and ecology.
Edwards noted a team effort is needed in the business community to promote tourism and the need for control of government overreach so businesses and the community can grow.
Clay said service to the community is what it’s about and people tell him that business as usual doesn’t work. He wants to bring in a philosophy of growth and development.
May said a focus should continue to be on downtown tourism and support of local businesses.
The General Election will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 3. For information, contact the general voter registrar’s office at the Smyth County Office Building, 121 Bagley Circle, Suite 422, Marion, 276-783-4511, between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The office is also open the two Saturdays immediately preceding any general election for the purpose of providing absentee voting.